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Bureaucracy

What is a case? A case is never a real person. A case is a series of characteristics abstracted from persons; it is a model of those characteristics that a potential client must display in order to qualify for the attention of a bureaucracy. —Ralph P. Hummel, The Bureaucratic Experience

By the time this ambulance made its way through miles of downtown rush-hour traffic, the man was dead.  He died waiting for a doctor, in a building full of doctors. That is what bureaucracy means.—Thomas Sowell, Ever Wonder Why?

Sound theology is rooted in the Bible. Because the Bible is theologically front-loaded, sound theology needs to take into account what we know about God, about human beings, and about creation, all of which are introduced to us in the first three chapters of Scripture. We begin there, where the Bible itself begins:

The first thing we learn about God in Scripture is that He is a communal and articulate Maker. His very name, Elohim, is a plural word. In its opening verse, the Bible combines that plural name with a singular verb (“create”), thus demonstrating that God is a plurality in unity—a community that works as one. He is communal; indeed He is Divine Community, something He Himself indicates a few sentences later when He declares His creative intention regarding us in Genesis 1:26: “Let us (plural) make (singular) man in our (plural) image (singular).”

Second, when we say that God is an articulate Maker, we mean that He makes worlds by His powerful and creative Word. All reality emerges from his Word and relies upon it, we human beings included.

Relatedly then, the first thing we learn about human beings is that we are made in God’s image, implying that we, too, are to be communal and articulate makers. To be in His image means that we are to be both God’s picture and God’s partner. Like Him, though on a lower level, we are to exercise dominion over the earth; we are to fill it and to subdue it.

To be like God and to do as He did—communally to bring order out of chaos by our words and to carry out the dominion mandate—is a high and serious calling. The burden of this brief essay is to explain the ways in which bureaucracy hinders that high calling, both in its communal and verbal dimensions. In short, bureaucracy, as do all things, has a theology, in this case a very bad one.

Bureaucracy” is a portmanteau word combining the French term for desk or office (“bureau”) with the ancient Greek word for government or rule (“kratos”). Thus, bureaucracy is “government from the desk,” or “rule by office.”

Notice that from this conception of governance all living things have effectively been removed. It posits no identifiable living being, whether divine or human. No persons are left to speak, to bring order out of chaos, to subdue the earth, or to do so in communion with others. More importantly for the desk dweller, no one is left to answer or to blame. Instead, government is the function of a nondescript, faceless, nameless office—a deskocracy.

No doubt a real human person sits behind that desk, but not a person functioning like God in God’s stead. The desk holder is not a person who, by his or her words, brings wisdom, insight, compassion, creativity, and eloquence to bear upon the task at hand, namely bringing order out of political and social chaos and making the best he or she can of the earth’s potential. That’s not what happens at the DMV, or in any bureaucracy I can imagine.

Within the organization, within the ruling deskocracy, humanity has been defaced, removed, and exiled. Those who operate within it find their essentially human characteristics eliminated:

  1. Conscience is gone. Officials may no longer exercise creative, compassionate judgment or offer imaginative solutions to the dazzling array of challenges that interaction with real human beings incessantly brings. Instead, bureaucrats must follow procedures. They must follow the manual, which replaces conscience. A human creature without a conscience is less than human.
  2. Discernment is gone. Bureaucrats may not bring wisdom, creative compassion, or personal insight to bear upon the infinite variety of human circumstances that confront them. They must do as directed by the manual, a text written and approved by other nameless and faceless apparatchiks inside the system.
  3. Community is gone. Deskocrats are not human beings dealing with other human beings; they are caseworkers handling cases—cases with numbers—and doing so in the sterile and schematic way prescribed by the approved, frozen, unresponsive, bureaucratic procedures. The aim is nothing more than getting quickly to closure and moving on to the next case, the next number. You’ve heard it over the loudspeaker: “Number 17, please.”
  4. Compassion is gone. The rules under which deskocrats operate prevent them from becoming personally involved. That’s not what the manual requires. The manual requires control. Situation specific compassion, wisdom, and discernment cannot be predicted in a manual or controlled by foreordained bureaucratic procedures; and the deskocracy is all about control.

In other words, if it’s a machine, it can’t think of you as anything but a machine. Indeed, it can’t think at all. All it can do is to repeat the decisions and the words selected on its behalf previously and were programmed into its manuals and guidelines later. Now that the decisions and words have been selected, all that is left to do is to apply them mindlessly to the present situation. In other words, what the deskocracy does to its workers it does also to those for whom it allegedly works: It makes them non-persons, or tries. In order to determine how machine-like the organization has become, simply calculate the extent to which the deskocrats can be, or have been, replaced by computers.

Consider this scenario: if you are a bureaucrat, if you occupy a desk, and if you actually tried to treat human beings as individuals by dealing with them not as numbered cases to be dispatched according to the manual, but in accordance with their unique and unpredictable circumstances, you could never finish your work, or even a significant portion of it. That failure tells you how distant from human reality, both political and theological, government by desk truly is: authentically good deskocracy is, literally, impossible.

Deskocracy is the one-size-fits-all administrative delusion that human differences can be safely ignored; that the path of wisdom, creativity, love, and efficiency can be antecedently known and therefore accurately and efficiently pre-determined; and that the infinite variety and complexities of human life can be reduced to almost zero without loss, confusion, or serious damage. But—and here I state the obvious—human nature cannot be reduced to a formula or to a procedure, no matter how complicated the one or how detailed the other.

Deskocracy simply cannot accommodate the facts about us. But rather than despairing of its foolishness; rather than bringing the whole wrong-headed misadventure to a merciful and overdue end; rather than adjusting itself to human and theological reality; it doubles down. It marches boldly forward, undaunted even by reality itself. It aims doggedly to do what cannot be done: it aims to change human nature, to remake it in its own image, to undo what God Himself has done, and to accomplish what only the redemptive grace of God can accomplish, namely to make human nature anew.

But the new you, the one intended for you and invented by the deskocracy, is not a redeemed and better you. It is a soulless, faceless, dehumanized number, just like those whom the system sends to deal with you. Of course, soulless and mindless go together. Having made its deskocrats sacrifice their conscience for controllable procedures, the system now finds ways and means to sacrifice reason as well, and to the same god: systemic uniformity, which devours free intellect the way Moloch devoured children.

Where intellect and conscience go, beauty goes too. No one, I dare say, ever left a government office with the grateful impression that they’d been standing for hours before Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or listening to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Deskocracy is the death of beauty, truth, and goodness; the death of their Divine origin; and, therefore, the death of the truly human as well. “Bureaucracy replaces the psyche. Psychological functions of knowledge and judgment once owned by the individual are now taken over by parts of the organization. Feeling and emotion are exiled.” Ralph P. Hummel goes on to remind us, pointedly, that, “psyche was the ancient word for soul.” When the inward you is replaced by an outward system, your dehumanization is complete.  To borrow a phrase form C. S. Lewis, it is the abolition of man.

Like so much else that goes wrong with government, bureaucracy is rooted in ostensibly good intentions. Given the complexities of human interaction and interdependence, bureaucracy is meant to provide a means both for widespread service and control. It does so by applying a mechanical paradigm to the tasks at hand. By this mechanistic paradigm, bureaucracy means to produce fairness efficiently.  This intended fairness is predicated upon the notion that we are more likely to treat individuals fairly if we treat them as (A) anonymous and (B) interchangeable units. In other words, it aims to treat persons as something they simply are not. Therein lies bureaucracy’s greatest failing: anonymous persons in the service and direction of anonymous persons. Or, as Lesslie Newbigin famously observed, bureaucracy is the rule of nobodies by nobodies.

Perhaps the deskocracy was inevitable. Because the need to develop large-scale control was enormous in the modern nation state, bureaucratization grew prodigiously. In order to supply the machinery, the personnel, and the schema of regularized procedure necessary for modestly efficient control, bureaucracy evolved. It deigned to reduce human beings to nameless, faceless, manageable units by beings of exactly the same sort. The end result is Newbigin’s rule of nobodies by nobodies—in short, tyranny—oppression by desk and by manual.

In a different context, Russell Kirk said this about state-built housing: “The state is building blocks of flats amid the fields. The state thinks in terms of units and floor-space; it seldom troubles about the character of inhabitants. What sort of houses we are making for people is a point worth graver consideration than it gets; and what sort of people we are making by these houses matters yet more.”   What the state has done to housing and to citizens, it has done to the bureaucracy and its clients:  it has dehumanized them and not thought at all about the sort of people it was helping to grow on both sides of its ugly system.

No matter how internally coherent and sensible the organization’s guidelines are, because they are divorced from the complexities and unpredictability of human reality, they produce irrational and injurious results. That happens every time arid rationalism (not rationality) displaces prudence, creativity, and compassion as the preferred means of discernment. Conformity to the demands of organizational coherence is neither rational nor wise. Bureaucracy banishes thought and replaces it with obedience and conformity. Human freedom, rationality, conscience, dignity, and creativity are subverted by organizational myopia, by rule from the desk. Inside the system, power relations and conformist pressures trump rationality. They expel the very humanity of those with whom it comes into contact. Institutionally mandated action is not the same as prudent, compassionate, enlightened, or humane action, whether we consider its origin, purpose, motive, or effect.

The difference between human action and bureaucratic action is the difference between human solidarity, a “we” relationship among equals, on the one hand, and a task-to-be-completed and a problem-to-be-solved function, on the other. The former is an I/I relationship; the latter is a pre-programed interaction between two its, two things. The former is a relationship within a community; the latter is a function within a machine.

To see more clearly what a bureaucracy is, compare it to the church, that is, compare it to the church as it ought to be, not to the church as it too often is. The church is a body; the bureaucracy is a mechanism. The church is animated by the Spirit and by love. The bureaucracy is not animated at all; it is driven. No spirit of love lies at its heart. It has no heart, only rules, regulations, and functionaries where human hearts ought to be. Bureaucracy is not about persons but procedures, policies, and practices, from which the truly human has been systematically and purposely evacuated, where the guidebook reigns supreme, and where imagination, creativity, and compassion are sacrificed to the system’s inflexible and inhumane requirements. The sad thing is this: rather than the bureaucracy growing to resemble the church, the church has grown to resemble the bureaucracy. As a result, souls have withered, clerical souls especially.  Within the bureaucracy, the mutuality of persons evaporates. Because we are no longer ourselves, it is no longer you and I face-to-face. We are not persons among persons. We are functionaries, on the one side, and cases with numbers for names, on the other.

Remember this the next time you vote: the bigger the government, the bigger the bureaucracy; the bigger the bureaucracy, the smaller the human being and the smaller the realm of authentic human life and interaction. The Leviathan eats people.

Deskocracy is not so much a state of mind as of mindlessness. It is conscienceless and soulless functional conformity. Do not expect from it anything like the humanizing works of love by which Christian are expected to make themselves known. For that reason and more, the welfare state, which is the bureaucratizing of mercy, can only be a nightmare, as its history has demonstrated. The nightmare we have here in view is rooted in a structure for which no formal place or explanation is given in the Constitution. To promote the general welfare is not the same as to promote welfare generally.

If one of the things that raises us above the animals and makes us pictures of, and partners with, God is the creative speech that brings order out of chaos—speech reflective of God’s own speech in Genesis—then one ought to consider the anti-human, anti-reality, language called bureaucratese, which is endless immersion in the impersonal passive voice. Unlike active and indicative speech—speech in which doers do deeds—in the language of deskocracy, “mistakes were made.”  It’s not that Mr. Jones, the deskocrat, did wrong. That is too personal a statement for standard bureaucratese. Mr. Jones could do no wrong because the rule is from the desk, not from Mr. Jones, and because “procedures were followed.”  No deskocrat can say, “I goofed,” because in bureaucratese there is no “I,” just desks, offices, bureaus, and procedures to which no effective appeal can be made and to which no accusation of personal failure can stick unless, of course, there is a Congressional hearing and the system has to offer up one of its own as a scapegoat. Rather than imitating the speech of God, which brings things like human beings into existence, bureaucratese takes them out of it.

Bureacratese is not an accidental language. The powers that be shaped it purposefully and intentionally. They know that word control is thought control. By policing your words, by allowing some words and prohibiting others, the deskocracy makes conceiving, articulating, and defending certain thoughts and ways of thinking impossible, literally unthinkable, which is an intentional reduction of the linguistic and conceptual possibilities open to its participants. Where the range of words is small, the range of thought is small.

To be true to yourself and to the God Who made you in His image, you must resist the de-personalization of the cumbrous and mechanistic overlord that occupies the desks and diminishes the creative language by which you can, like God before you, bring order and richness out of chaos. You must resist this encroachment on language and its humanizing powers in eloquent, courageous, and purposeful concord with other human beings determined to keep the inestimable linguistic gift God gave them as His human image.  Either you win or the system does. If it wins, you will be folded, spindled, stapled, and mutilated. That dire end is your only alternative to the freedom and dignity that are yours as God’s picture and partner.

I cannot tell you in advance, step-by-step, precisely how that victory is accomplished. Simply for me to try would be to mimic the deskocracy and its arrogant manuals and procedures.

But I know this:  You are a human being. You and your allies must insist on being treated as children of the King, as royalty. If you do not win back that respect for yourself and others, if you do not carve it out by your own will, cunning, courage, eloquence, and excellence, you will never have it again—not in this life, and certainly not from the deskocratic tyranny. The deskocracy is not programmed to deal with children of the King. It never has been: in response to the burgeoning growth of independent thinking in his day, Frederick the Great is reputed to have said, “Think as much as you wish, just obey.” By so speaking, Frederick laid the foundation of modern bureaucratic government.

The mechanics of bureaucratic rule must be obeyed. If you are a deskocrat, you are not permitted to reason, to create, or to feel.  You are not permitted to be authentically human. You are permitted only do as the manual prescribes, or else be replaced by someone who will. In response to the challenges they face daily, deskocrats are not permitted to say, “Let me think about that.” They may say only, “Let me look it up.” If the manual is silent on the point, they say, “Let me ask my bosses” (who will in turn look it up in their manuals or ask their bosses).

If you want a place in the deskocracy, and especially if you want that place to rise, you have to pay a price: either a soulectomy or a conscienceotomy. Take your pick. It’s a Faustian bargain.

Many there be who make it.

In the eerie twilight of dehumanization, we simply echo the cry of desperation uttered in the 19th century by J.A. Froude—let us have bureaucrats with no department to paralyze. Cut them loose from government.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Baumann: This is a great essay and one of the best critiques of bureaucracy that I’ve read, marred only by the fact that you’ve neglected to note that bureaucracy is not limited to government, but has long been a staple of corporate administration and organization as well. Leviathan is alive and well in the private sector, too (albeit with not insignificant differences); I suspect that your anti-government agenda has gotten the better of you here. Fundamentally, bureaucracy is not so much a government invention as a human one, in which we sacrifice our best and most humane qualities, as you eloquently point out, in the name of “efficiency” and “productivity”. It is indeed a Faustian bargain, but again, it goes beyond government; I remember my father, a lifelong loyal white-collar corporate employee (and loyal Republican), singing along to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”–“I sold my soul to the company store…”

    I’m also surprised you didn’t mention Franz Kafka, who had something to say on the subject. But I do like the word “deskocracy”.

  2. Jack, you are exactly right. Bureaucracy is by no means limited to government. The public sector is home to this monster too. More’s the pity. I should have made explicit reference to it. Mea culpa.

  3. I think that government bureaucracies must necessarily be uniform and procedural. To be any other way would invite claims of preferential treatment or corruption. That being said, I believe that there are far too many things that are unnecessarily regulated and controlled.

    Corporate bureaucracy certainly does exist, but somewhere there is usually someone with a beating heart who can make or override the decisions that the subordinates make – if it is good for the company. Any other justification can lead to the same problems as government bureaucracies – charges of preferential treatment or corruption.

    It seems to me that the institutions that are least likely to be bureaucratic are the smallest and closest to free-market ideals. People in those situations are more likely to offer creative and custom tailored solutions.

  4. In terms of corporate bureaucracies, I have never been able to fathom the international licensing regime in the toy/cartoon/anime market. Back in the 80s, before the internet, it made sense that if (to give an example) Takara wanted to sell Diaclone in the US they would license it to Hasbro to make a series, or that Big West would distribute via Harmony Gold. The products and TV shows would undergo what I suppose today would be called “localization” and often be sold as something completely different.

    But nowadays, the internet has globalized demand and people often want to watch a show or buy a product NOW, in real-time, not in two years after the principle company has negotiated a licensing agreement with a second party…

    This in turn fuels internet piracy and black market activity, since enough demand exists prior to licensing – someone always shows up to fill that demand.

    It would make more sense for companies to just globalize their marketing. This is happening more and more, but from time to time there’s stuff people can’t access and they have to pay more (if it’s a physical product) or watch stuff via downloads.

    I could never understand why these kind of situations emerge, except that it has something to do with a copyright and intellectual property legal regime tailored to a world without the internet, and a bureaucratic inertia in the companies involved…

  5. This, by the way, is not just in public service…or Government. These efficiency & by the book tactics that punish people for trying to actually do their jobs, started in the private sector. Believe me, If you want to find the culprits, look to Management training…

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